On the Thames, with a superb view of St. Paul's Cathedral, is a huge old power station. For more than 15 years, it has sat derelict on the river's shabby southern bank. But now, $210 million is transforming it into Britain's leading modern-art museum--a branch of the Tate Gallery. Meanwhile, nearly next door, the $50 million thatched replica of William Shakespeare's 16th century Globe Theater has just opened. And not far upriver, the Oxo Tower Restaurant, with its northerly vistas, has been luring a glitzy crowd since opening last autumn.
These projects, and a slew of others, are giving a lift to London's south bank--now a generic name for a wider region than the officially designated South Bank. To add to the confusion, the south bank is part of South London, an undistinguished district long considered central London's ugly stepsister. In the past couple of years, however, property prices on the south bank have soared, and prosperous buyers are trickling in to snap up a home with a view. "The whole area could become London's Left Bank," says Geoff Marsh, managing director of London Residential Research Ltd.
In Shakespeare's day, this was a seedy side of town where unsavory amusements such as bear-baiting pits and raucous theaters and inns flourished out of the reach of the authorities across the river. Entertainment--without bears--will again be at the heart of things. But even more crucial to the turnaround is the $4.2 billion, 16-kilometer extension to the Underground's Jubilee Line, due to open in October, 1998, which will link the Canary Wharf office complex in the east to central London via parts of the south bank that have never had good tube connections. "It's definitely going to make a huge difference to people down here," says Robert Holmes, 25, who is looking to move south of the river from London's trendy Portobello.
The focus on transportation is also behind the two planned pedestrian bridges over the river. Londoners who live north of the Thames tend to think of their turf as the city proper--just as some Manhattanites seem unaware of the rest of New York. But the new tube line and all the renovation are "shifting the focus of central London onto the Thames," says Fred Manson of the Regeneration & Environment Dept. at Southwark Council.
Last year, south bank property prices jumped by 40%--one of the steepest increases of any London neighborhood. Developers are flooding in to convert warehouses and offices into living space. Marsh guesses several hundred million dollars are being invested in residential developments alone.
An executive stands jotting down the phone number for information in front of the White House in the south bank. Once an office block, it is being converted into 370 apartments, priced from $200,000 to more than $3 million. "I never thought I'd say it, but I think investing in this area might be a good idea," he says. "It really seems to be picking up momentum."
But the problem plaguing planners is how to make sure this regeneration takes hold. The trail of failed efforts to revitalize the south bank leads back to the 1920s. "It's possible to avoid the boom-bust of the past," says Geoffrey Noble, head of South London Team at English Heritage, which advises the government on conserving historic buildings. To do that, planners are steering clear of the speculative office projects that fueled the city's last, short-lived boom in the '80s.
Planners hope the push to refocus London on the river will help secure the regeneration of the south bank. The desired shift in attitudes would have been unthinkable as recently as the late 1960s, before pollution in the Thames was tackled. The river is no longer filthy--or, with the demise of coal-burning, foggy. Along with the barges that still ply its waters, carrying steel, wood, and aggregates, a thriving fleet of sightseeing boats carries tourists clicking their cameras at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and other fabled sights.
For South Londoners, there's an added solace in what the eye takes in. For even if today's big projects go the cobwebbed way of others in this ancient city, the south bank still has a big advantage: the view to the north.